Players Gonna Play?

Written by Keen Azariah Category: Valley News Issue: April 2015
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Will Escape the Room-Arizona escape the bankrupt fate of other adult role-playing games?
The room is strange and narrow, like a walk-in closet converted into a playroom for a child in the 1980s. A poster of Michael Jackson hangs on the brick wall, keeping watch over the retro exercise bike and analog television illuminated with an Atari video game in reset mode.

People pay to be locked in this room for an hour. Not to play Asteroids or reminisce about the “Thriller” video, but for the challenge of trying to get out. This is “The Rec Room” at the headquarters of Scottsdale-based company Escape the Room Arizona, a self-described “interactive entertainment concept” akin to Escape the Room NYC (popularized by celeb participants Matt Lauer and Carson Daly). The premise: People are locked in a room with the goal of of uncovering and deciphering hidden clues in order to escape within the allotted time limit.

Escape the Room Arizona manager Paul Boyd refers to this form of amusement as “live-action puzzle solving.” It’s essentially a for-profit version of a live-action role play game (LARP), in which players – usually hobbyists who organize and fund games themselves – undertake the roles of fictional characters and act out scenes. Such games are rooted in the childhood tradition of “cops and robbers,” but with complexity and structure, often involving “missions,” enacted conflicts, and puzzle-solving.

Stoked by amenable weather and ample sprawl, LARPs are undeniably popular in the Valley; go online and you’ll find groups with large rosters of escapist-minded Phoenicians. Still, the viability of live-action gaming as for-profit amusement is uncertain. Like several defunct ventures before it, Escape the Room – which opened last December – is attempting to wean consumers off the passive, 90-minute, movie-and-comedy-club-style entertainment model. It’s a heroic risk, but will it work?

Organizers have attempted to make Escape the Room affordable. Participation costs $32.23 per person; by comparison, The Citadel – a well-funded and ambitious local LARP that had a brief run four years ago – required a team of four and charged $95 per player. Escape enthusiasts say the cost is worth it. “It was fun,” said Monica Ross of Chandler. “Even though we didn’t make it out in time, it was totally fun.”

LARPs have their genesis in the early 1980s, when a rulebook by national game designer Steve Jackson called Killer: The Game of Assassination was published. Released in 1982, the game requires players to try to ambush and “eliminate” each other with mock weapons and stealth “hits,” with game play taking place anywhere and at any time.

However, in a post-Columbine world where kindergartners saying “BANG!” while holding a chicken strip could incite playground panic, it’s easy to see why some weapon-based live-action games have been banned on many college campuses. Pay-to-play LARPs like Escape offer inherent advantages over non-professional ventures, like a controlled gameplay environment.

Staking out their own commercial space may be Escape the Room’s saving grace. Obtaining commercial spaces and using public spaces as playgrounds racks up rental fees and public safety concerns. The Citadel fizzled out after less than two years because it hadn’t come anywhere close to breaking even on the more than $55,000 that creator Greg Shaw sank into production costs.

However, Boyd is bullish on Escape the Room Arizona. He says the game has thrilled many of the Valley’s adventure seekers with its puzzle-laden chambers. “Our escape rooms are doing very well,” Boyd says when asked about the longevity and risk of such ventures. “We recommend you book at least a week in advance. [For birthdays], we suggest... two weeks notice so you can get the exact time and day you are looking for.”

Escape the Room Arizona
7017 E. Main St., Scottsdale

More Live-Action Role-Playing Games:

Vampire the Masquerade
Players assume the roles of bloodsuckers belonging to various clans, which alternately quarrel with each other and seek self-identity in this dark, multidimensional live-action game from White Wolf Publishing.

Cannonball Phoenix Spree
Less committed live-action gamers can join Valley car enthusiasts in a daylong race from Phoenix to Flagstaff through a fun, obstacle-laden trek northward. Based on the Burt Reynolds Cannonball Run movies. About a hundred people participated in the 2014 race.

Humans Vs. Zombies
The popular 2005 live-action game spawned nationwide participation, and even a 2011 film. Hundreds of students participate annually at Arizona campuses including Grand Canyon University and Northern Arizona University.